Wednesday 3 October 2012

Can blackpowder era cavalry really fire mounted?

Fans of Hussarettes, don't worry - here's a picture for you!
Emily - "five feet of fun"

and for Wargamers, don't worry, this is about wargaming (but also a little art) so here's a couple of pictures for you too.

Imperial Dragoons defend the honour of Reikland with musketry
while their French opponents steadily trot forward
(Battle of the Chambreuse Valley fought here at the Chateau de Grandchamp
in April this year - nine x five feet of fun!)
If life imitates art then, in my case at least, art gives an insight into life (wargaming is not just a  hobby is it?).  It was a few weeks ago, while the UK was enjoying a brief Summer in September, that I found myself on a  farm in South Gloucestershire conducting a photo shoot with my latest Hussarette model and her horse. To protect the innocent I'll call them Emily and Bob.
For those who need a reminder of what my Hussarettes project is about please see the previous posting

I needed a customised photo shoot on horseback, preferably with a female rider, but I knew this would also give me valuable real life references for a wide range of military illustrations for the future. I have an archive of  American Civil War re-enactors, many mounted, taken in camp and more distantly, in battle at the Gettysburg re-enactment in 2008, but it's not the same as spending a couple of hours with horse and rider performing just for your camera. The Duchess came up trumps by introducing me (sight unseen) to Emily, who is a friend, and Bob. Emily was very willing for any opportunity to exercise with Bob and just seemed a natural in the tight jodphurs, waistcoat and neck stock.
If there was a downside it was that Bob proved to be 18 years old and rather hairy compared to all those classic paintings of valiant stallions ridden by dashing hussars from which we wargamers get our inspiration. At 16 hands he is big - the right size for a dragoon or cuirassier steed, but Emily is only 5 feet nothing. This left a little to the imagination of proportion to her historical counterpart soldiers, I hitched her sword belt up a few notches for the slim waist, and found she was not that much taller than the sabre!. But Hey!, she made up for that as a Hussarette , so who's complaining?
Emily wears sabre, sabretache cartridge box and carbine.
Safety first though - I left the fur colback at home as she had
to wear a riding helmet - love the colour!

So for comparison I found this French Dragoon by Meissonier who is on a nag that looks quite realistic because he is not tall and sleek, he is a bit hairy and he looks disinterested. Probably not that well nourished or cleaned either (unlike Bob in these respects who was mostly happy and clean and loved his cantering).

We did lots of shots first with the sabre and Bob was very well behaved. He and Emily are life-long friends and he trusts her completely, but he's not trained with cavalry weapons and didn't like the sabre scabbard touching his flank. We had to take it off once that part of the shoot was done as he got a bit tetchy. That was my first real life insight into part of the military training necessary for horses, more was to come.

"They shoot horses don't they?"
Forgive the allusion to that 1969 movie title but this photo says just that to me! How did it come about?

I needed some real life references for cavalry firing from the saddle and got Emily to raise the slung carbine to her shoulder in the aiming position. So good is her understanding with Bob that she naturally dropped the reins on his neck and he stood quietly. But I quickly thought this did not seem right since to me, as a non-horse rider, surely with a combination of the rigours of campaigning, unfamiliar horses and riders, and the noise of battle, the cavalry soldier would have to maintain a hold of the reins lest the horse bolted? Emily gladly adopted this action for me and many times she tried to "fire" (no real shots). Each time Bob bucked his neck and moved a bit in protest and the photo results suggest that any ball fired might have gone anywhere but towards an enemy 50 to a 100 yards in front. In this case I think the poor horse would have got it between the ears.

So what can I conclude from this?
- There's no way cavalry could fire effectively while moving.
- Even when supposedly static the horses will move when least expected
- Lots of shots will be wasted, and there may even be "collateral damage"
- Wargamers wanting to fire their cavalry effectively while mounted will need to prove their horses are well trained and familiar with their riders. Not very common if we are to believe contemporary accounts of wastage and death on campaign among military horses.

Edouard Detaille - Hussars skirmishing.
My experience suggests these horses are far too well behaved!
So it was with some relief that this part of my bigger exercise proved that we might have it right in the recently rewritten rules about cavalry firing in my 18th Century wargame rules, "Wigs and Wine".
Here are some relevant extracts:
Heavy and Field artillery and mounted cavalry cannot move and fire; others may do so.

Only the first rank ....may fire.

Weapon Firing    Range to Target: Die Roll Deduction
1-5"        5-10"
Musket -1 -2
Dragoon musket (mounted)         -2 -3(8” max)

Lt Cavalry carbine -2

Well, I hope this has proved of some interest, please comment and let me know what you think. If you are a cavalry re-enactor with practical experience that would be particularly appreciated.

So I'll leave with a parting photo from a costumed photo session
Ideal view of a Hussarette? - kneeling firing


  1. Interesting post Chris.

    "Five Feet of Fun"? sounds like the dictionary definition of a Hussarette! How tall is Kylie? She'd make a smahing Hussarette.... we should be so lucky!

    Your thoughts on firing while mounted and the photo reminded me of something I read in one of the books on TE Lawrence. I can't recall if it was him or another British officer in a camel charge on the Turks, blasting away with his revolver; then came to on the ground several yards from his dead camel which had a bullet hole in the back of it's head!
    I'd say that only those steppe nomads like the Mongols could shoot effectively from a moving horse - have you seen any film of modern Mongol shooting competitions - they fire bolt action or semi auto rifles from a galloping horse and hit the target! But - they always shoot to the side, never over the horses head.
    I think the Detaille print could show veteran troops on well trained horses at the start of a campaign - once replacements and remounts arrived I think what you saw with Emily and Bob would be the norm.

    Looking forward to some more Hussarette goodness in the future.

    all the best


  2. Wonderful set of photos Chris. Also looking forward to more!

  3. Having just now discovered this blogspot, I am very interested in this article. You present a strong and persuasive case. Even with appropriate training, one imagines skirmish firing from horseback a chancy business. One question, though: did you try firing to a flank (probably to the left)?

    This is not the same thing I think as, say, pistol or musketoon fire on the charge. Bedford Forrest (CSA) gave as his opinion that the shotgun was the best cavalry weapon ever devised (!), and the Austrian Cavalry (Cuirassiers) of the mid-18th Century had some troopers armed with musketoons - a kind on one-handed blunderbuss thing if memory serves.

  4. Thanks chaps for all these thoughts. I will answer Ion's with another posting so I can show more photos.

  5. I'd agree about not letting troops shoot on horseback for the most part except for the fact that at the start of the WSS most of the French horse were trained to caracole shooting pistols at the enemy rather than use the blade. However, I'm not aware of any troop being trained to fire their musketoon from horseback.

  6. Paul, thanks for your thoughts. My comments were aimed mainly at the time when caracole firing had gone out of favour yet all those cavalry and dragoons right into the Napoleonic era and beyond still had carbines or muskets. Presumably this was either for dismounted firing or skirmishing when there was enough space to manoeuvre the horses to fire sideways. We do allow firing volleys from the saddle but with minimal effect.

  7. Chris, you asked for comments from a cavalry re-enactor. Well I was one, as a Napoleonic 15th Hussar for about 15 years. My thoughts on carbine fire from the saddle are as follows;-

    The only practical direction to shoot is in an arc from about 8 o clock to 10 o clock, imagining 12 noon to be ahead over the horse's ears. The trick is to keep the reins in the left hand as usual but raise the left elbow to about shoulder height. rest the barrel of the weapon in the crook of the elbow.

    When stationary a good aim can be taken this way, but with an 18 inch barrel on the weapon, accuracy is not much of a factor. I have always assumed it was about putting lots of balls 'down-range' and hoping for the best.

    Reloading is a bugger, even though with swivel ramrods you cant drop anything as its all attached to you, nonetheless I would suggest troops are allowed one round of firing before having to rally in some way to reload. We tended to ride on to the field with one up the spout, and once you'd fired it in the skirmish phase of the action, forget the carbine and get your '96 out (light cav sabre).

    Firing on the move is perfectly do-able even on an untrained horse, and is probably only a bit less accurate than standing still. Counter-intuitively, a stationary horse has lots of options on how it can react to a gunshot, most of them unhelpful! If its already galloping at full speed there's relatively little it can do except keep galloping...

    What I can say overall, though is that even on a horse you know well, it takes some nerve to do it, or idiocy, you be the judge....



  8. Hi Dave. Even though it's over two years since I did this post I really appreciate you taking the time to answer so fully. I'll be copying it and sending it by email to various folks I know will be interested as they probably won't visit back here.Very interesting and certainly relevant for a skirmish wargame, but for larger games where one turn's firing equates to lots of rounds of shooting, it makes carbine fire from the saddle practically irrelevant.

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